Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
It is clearly within the domain of the legislative branch of government to establish presumptions and rules respecting burden of proof in litigation. 1 Nonetheless, the Due Process Clause does prevent the deprivation of liberty or property upon application of a standard of proof too lax to make reasonable assurance of accurate factfinding. Thus,
[t]he function of a standard of proof, as that concept is embodied in the Due Process Clause and in the realm of factfinding, is to ‘instruct the factfinder concerning the degree of confidence our society thinks he should have in the correctness of factual conclusions for a particular type of adjudication.’ 2
Applying the formula it has worked out for determining what process is due in a particular situation, 3 the Court has held that a standard at least as stringent as clear and convincing evidence is required in a civil proceeding to commit an individual involuntarily to a state mental hospital for an indefinite period. 4 Similarly, because the interest of parents in retaining custody of their children is fundamental, the state may not terminate parental rights through reliance on a standard of preponderance of the evidence – the proof necessary to award money damages in an ordinary civil action – but must prove that the parents are unfit by clear and convincing evidence. 5 Further, unfitness of a parent may not simply be presumed because of some purported assumption about general characteristics, but must be established. 6
As long as a presumption is not unreasonable and is not conclusive, it does not violate the Due Process Clause. Legislative fiat may not take the place of fact in the determination of issues involving life, liberty, or property, however, and a statute creating a presumption which is entirely arbitrary and which operates to deny a fair opportunity to repel it or to present facts pertinent to one’s defense is void. 7 On the other hand, if there is a rational connection between what is proved and what is inferred, legislation declaring that the proof of one fact or group of facts shall constitute prima facie evidence of a main or ultimate fact will be sustained. 8
For a brief period, the Court used what it called the
irrebuttable presumption doctrine to curb the legislative tendency to confer a benefit or to impose a detriment based on presumed characteristics based on the existence of another characteristic. 9 Thus, in Stanley v. Illinois, 10 the Court found invalid a construction of the state statute that presumed unmarried fathers to be unfit parents and that prevented them from objecting to state wardship. Mandatory maternity leave rules requiring pregnant teachers to take unpaid maternity leave at a set time prior to the date of the expected births of their babies were voided as creating a conclusive presumption that every pregnant teacher who reaches a particular point of pregnancy becomes physically incapable of teaching. 11
Major controversy developed over the application of
irrebuttable presumption doctrine in benefits cases. Thus, although a state may require that nonresidents must pay higher tuition charges at state colleges than residents, and while the Court assumed that a durational residency requirement would be permissible as a prerequisite to qualify for the lower tuition, it was held impermissible for the state to presume conclusively that because the legal address of a student was outside the state at the time of application or at some point during the preceding year he was a nonresident as long as he remained a student. The Due Process Clause required that the student be afforded the opportunity to show that he is or has become a bona fide resident entitled to the lower tuition. 12
Moreover, a food stamp program provision making ineligible any household that contained a member age 18 or over who was claimed as a dependent for federal income tax purposes the prior tax year by a person not himself eligible for stamps was voided on the ground that it created a conclusive presumption that fairly often could be shown to be false if evidence could be presented. 13 The rule which emerged for subjecting persons to detriment or qualifying them for benefits was that the legislature may not presume the existence of the decisive characteristic upon a given set of facts, unless it can be shown that the defined characteristics do in fact encompass all persons and only those persons that it was the purpose of the legislature to reach. The doctrine in effect afforded the Court the opportunity to choose between resort to the Equal Protection Clause or to the Due Process Clause in judging the validity of certain classifications, 14 and it precluded Congress and legislatures from making general classifications that avoided the administrative costs of individualization in many areas.
Use of the doctrine was curbed if not halted, however, in Weinberger v. Salfi, 15 in which the Court upheld the validity of a Social Security provision requiring that the spouse of a covered wage earner must have been married to the wage earner for at least nine months prior to his death in order to receive benefits as a spouse. Purporting to approve but to distinguish the prior cases in the line, 16 the Court imported traditional equal protection analysis into considerations of due process challenges to statutory classifications. 17 Extensions of the prior cases to government entitlement classifications, such as the Social Security Act qualification standard before it, would, said the Court,
turn the doctrine of those cases into a virtual engine of destruction for countless legislative judgments which have heretofore been thought wholly consistent with the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. 18 Whether the Court will now limit the doctrine to the detriment area only, exclusive of benefit programs, whether it will limit it to those areas which involve fundamental rights or suspect classifications (in the equal protection sense of those expressions) 19 or whether it will simply permit the doctrine to pass from the scene remains unsettled, but it is noteworthy that it now rarely appears on the Court’s docket. 20